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Safety and Compliance: Mirror Image

by John Oldfield

Are you getting the whole picture when you look at the reflection in your mirrors? One of the greatest threats to your livelihood is vehicles and people hiding in those blind spots all around your unit. It seems that nobody has yet bothered to tell the Canadian public that there are blind spots around big trucks, and that trucks can't stop or maneuver in the same space as a car. That won't be news to you, but you still share your workplace with four wheelers, and when an accident occurs, all fingers are pointed, initially at least, at the truck.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently produced a 175-page study of crash data in order to assist them in developing intelligent vehicle/highway systems technology to make our vehicles and roads smarter and safer. I like to think that we already have all of the computing power we need - sitting right behind our eyebrows - to help us avoid collisions. Nevertheless, the study revealed some interesting data on common collisions.

The stated intent of some of the proposed Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) technology is to, "augment a driver's ability in detecting roadway hazards, and may include semi- or fully-automatic remote control of the vehicle." The types of accidents identified in the study are the same ones that we strive to avoid every day as professional drivers - rear-end and backing collisions, lane-change, merge and roadway departure collisions, as well as intersection collisions.

At one point, the study suggests that, "When a driver first perceives a threat of accident, less than 8% of the drivers of the traditional lane-change/merge and backing crashes took any corrective action." It further suggests that "These drivers appeared to have been caught by surprise and did not have time to respond, or the threat was never perceived in the first place." It sounds to me like the drivers in the study never saw what they were about to collide with.

We've all had close calls on the road when something suddenly appears from a blindspot just before you're about to make a move. We've all made those split-second lane-change decisions based on subconsciously collecting data about what's around you. The best professional drivers always know what's in their "No Zones". The truth is, we base decisions on data collected from more detailed observations than any current computer could hope to provide.

We use mirror images, shadows, subtle changes in the feel or the attitude of our truck, as well as our good old-fashioned gut survival instincts. In most cases, drivers who use their mirrors to full advantage will have a clearer picture in their mind of what's going on around them than any dash-mounted computer monitor could ever provide.

Notice I said "drivers who use their mirrors to full advantage?" You've got to maximize your data-gathering capabilities by fully utilizing all the resources available. Do you know where the blind spots are on your unit? Are you certain that your mirrors are adjusted to minimize these blind spots? And are you making maximum use of the convex mirrors? Improperly adjusted mirrors can restrict your side vision by as much as 50%, dramatically increasing the size of your blind spots.

If you can see the load on your flatbed or count the panels on your van without moving your head, your mirrors are probably positioned incorrectly. The mirrors should be positioned so that you can monitor all of the areas around your truck without moving your head. You should position the mirrors so that you'll have to move your head slightly to see the trailer, rather than moving your head to see the traffic. Our eyes are designed to detect movement, and any sudden movements around you will draw your attention instinctively. Learn to use the mirrors and learn to trust what you see reflected in the glass.

The next time you're running down a long straight stretch of highway watch those cars coming up on you, on both sides, and note when they disappear from view. This is a particularly useful exercise at night. Day or night, you may not be able to recognize the make and model of the car, but you must learn to recognize its position relative to your truck. Once you've accomplished that, you'll be able to overcome the doubt and the need to take a second, perhaps excessively long look in the mirror to be completely sure what you're looking at.

Convex mirrors up on the fenders aren't pretty, but they're prettier than a wreck. They do a great job of reducing the blind spots near the front wheels and alongside the cab. Learn to use the passenger-door port hole as well if you have one. And work at developing a scanning pattern so that you train yourself to look everywhere, quickly, without having to linger and sort out what it is you're seeing.

Rather than adjusting mirrors while under power, adjust your head for the next car to see if you can reduce the length of the blind spot, then make the necessary adjustments while you're stopped. Try the same thing in the yard with someone driving a car around the truck while you're in the captain's seat. Note the blind spots and try to reduce them by adjusting your mirrors. Proper mirror adjustment can reduce the blind spot on a 53-ft van by one full car length, and up to two car lengths with a set of Super-B's.

For an interesting exercise while in the yard, have someone nose a car right up to the ICC bumper and then have them back up. Signal them to stop when you can see both front corners of the car. I think you'll be quite surprised. With a 53-ft, 102-in.-wide trailer, you'll find that a car is about 160 ft off your stern before you'll see it. A 6-in. diameter post may be twice that distance before it comes into view. Think about that the next time you start backing up without having done your walk-around. Also, think about what could happen if you had to make an evasive maneuver, and a previously invisible car jumps out from behind you and restricts your options.

I really don't have a problem with the available collision-avoidance technology, such as that from Eaton VORAD, or even some of the video monitors that we're beginning to see. The problem is, many drivers still don't use the most basic of all technologies properly. Put a video monitor in the cab, and it's one more resource. But it could become a distraction if it demands a second, interpretive glance.

Learn to interpret what your mirrors reveal, keep the glass clean, and develop a scanning routine that will keep you abreast of everything that's going on around you. I truly believe that professional drivers don't have accidents, they either make mistakes or they get surprised. Maximize the use of your mirrors, know what's around you and always have a plan if something surprises you. Be ready.

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